Northern Cyprus: Visiting a country that doesn’t exist

Nicosia, Cyprus (CNN) — A fuzzy snout nosed into my open car window, followed by a pair of brown eyes under enviable lashes.

Jarring my rental car on hard-packed ruts, I’d turned onto a dirt track in the Karpaz Peninsula hoping to find the wild donkeys that live here — instead, one found me. In this remote region of northern Cyprus, their domesticated ancestors were abandoned by Greek-speaking farmers who fled to the south when Turkish troops occupied the northern part of the island in 1974.

Now, donkeys have free rein in the peninsula’s beaches and grass-scrubbed hills; they cluster at the edge of the dusty road looking for handouts from tourists. But if this conflict set the donkeys free to live on carrots and granola bars, it left the island of Cyprus divided by fences and conflict.

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The wild donkeys of North Cyprus look for tourist handouts.

Courtesy Jen Rose Smith

A buffer zone splits this easternmost Mediterranean island in two, a 180-kilometer scar maintained by United Nations peacekeepers in one of the longest-running missions in history.

To the south of the razor wire is the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus, an European Union member state that claims the entire island as its own and is supported by the international community.

To the north is the Turkish-occupied zone, whose leaders adopted a new name when they unilaterally declared independence in 1983: the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).

Only Turkey recognizes the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as legitimate. Though the local tourism ministry estimates that 360,000 people live here, in the eyes of the world the TRNC is a country that does not exist.

Through the razor wire

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Sandbags fortify the buffer zone that runs through Nicosia’s historic center.

Courtesy Jen Rose Smith

To enter northern Cyprus, I lined up at a checkpoint in Nicosia, the capital city of the Republic of Cyprus. The historic center is cleaved in two by the buffer zone — and the TRNC claims the north side of town as their own capital. Stern notices informed me that I was traveling to occupied territory. On the other side of the buffer zone, though, the fortified border gave way to stylish restaurants and shops. Here, malls abut war memorials and military bases rub shoulders with beach bars.

In the TRNC, the growth of a booming tourist economy barely covers wartime scars.

Those scars are on display at the beachside-city of Varosha. Once a glamorous getaway for a star-studded, international crowd, the hollowed-out resort is now penned behind rusting barriers and Turkish military posts. Gentle waves lap the barbed wire fence, where tourists snap selfies beside notices that prohibit all photography.

Politics extend into the island’s most remote places. While high on the ridge that travels through northern Cyprus, I climbed a long staircase to the Byzantine fortress of Bufavento, which seemed a world away from the modern-day conflict — until I spotted the enormous TRNC flag painted across the adjoining mountainside.

The flag is positioned to dominate both sides of divided Nicosia. Beside it, white stones spell out a quote from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish state: “Ne mutlu Türküm diyene.” (How happy is the one who calls himself a Turk.)

An economy behind the walls

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Historic architecture flanks the buffer zone on both sides of Nicosia, with Greek signs giving way to Turkish ones when crossing from south to north.

Courtesy Jen Rose Smith

And while I crossed into the TRNC with just a cursory passport check, status as an unrecognized state has shaped life here in profound ways.

A longstanding embargo severely restricts exports from the region, which has created a self-contained economy that can thrive in relative isolation.

Education has become big business, filling the economic void by drawing students from across the Middle East and Africa. This tiny region has more than a dozen schools offering a bachelor’s degree or above, including the American University of Cyprus and Girne American University. For students who struggle to get visas in the west, an education in northern Cyprus can seem like a step closer to Europe.

While strolling the harbor town of Kyrenia, I met a woman who had traveled from Nigeria to the TRNC in pursuit of a business degree. Like many students before her, she’d arrived believing she was headed to school in the European Union, since she’d read that the Republic of Cyprus on the south side of the island is a member state.

Now she felt trapped by living in an occupied zone. Without the necessary visa for the southern part of the island, she’s confined to the north. “When I looked on the university web site,” she said, “it didn’t say ‘Turkish Cyprus,’ or ‘occupied Cyprus.’ It just said ‘Cyprus.'”

History on high

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The Byzantine Saint Hilarion Castle fortifies an already-forbidding ridge in the Kyrenia mountains.

Courtesy Jen Rose Smith

But if education has swelled, tourism is what keeps northern Cyprus alive.

The Tourism Ministry for the TRNC estimates that it accounts for roughly 50% of the economy, and that two million tourists come to the TRNC each year, an influx that’s more than five times the region’s permanent population. It’s easy to see the draw: Set aside the barbed wire and military presence, and northern Cyprus is enchanting.

Framed by sandy beaches and fortified with eyrie-like castles, the slip of a region is ridged with a single line of mountains that gives way to green foothills on either side.

Among the most beautiful spots is the Gothic Bellapais Abbey, which is perched between the gentler coastal slopes and the rocky peaks. Much of the roof has long since fallen, but visitors to the abbey can still find evidence of the French Lusignan dynasty that founded it in the 13th century.

Even higher in the Kyrenia mountain range is a trio of Byzantine fortifications: Bufavento, where I’d seen the giant TRNC flag, flanked by the Saint Hilarion and Kantara castles.

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Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque was built as a cathedral in the 14th century, then turned into a mosque under Ottoman rule.

Courtesy Jen Rose Smith

Guarded by a Turkish army checkpoint, St Hilarion Castle clads the spine of the mountains like a dragon’s scales, the once-powerful fortifications now open to the sky. Battered with wind from the central plain, Kantara Castle is equally scenic, and I found some of the year’s first wildflowers pushing up between the rocky paths.

Though the centuries have weathered these castles into romantic ruins, they were originally built as fortresses with a starkly military purpose. Like many of Cyprus’ most beautiful places, they tell the stories of the armies that have washed up on the island’s shores.

The same tale is woven through the architecture of Famagusta, a walled city on the east coast of the TRNC whose stone fortifications shelter a maze of streets and historic buildings.

Here, birds fly through the open doors of ruined chapels, bartenders pour Turkish lager in a church built by the Knights Templar, and tourists sip cocktails in a building that was once an Ottoman bath. And at the heart of the city is the magnificent Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, which seems to glow in the warm afternoon sunlight. Built as a cathedral in the 14th century, the building became a mosque under Ottoman rule, with slender minarets grafted onto its Gothic façade.

A synthesis of styles and faiths, it’s a fitting symbol of Cyprus’ richly layered culture — and the island’s history of conflict.

A tradition of occupation

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Once a glamorous destination, the resort city of Varosha is now a ghost town with Mediterranean views.

Courtesy Jen Rose Smith

For Americans familiar with Cyprus, that legacy of war may be the only thing they know about the island.

“The history of Cyprus is a history of occupations,” said Mustafa Köprülü, a tourism officer in the TRNC’s Tourism Ministry. I’d traveled into the north side of Nicosia to visit him in an office just a block away from the barbed wire and sandbags of the Buffer Zone. “Greek, Roman, Lusignan, Byzantine, Ottoman — they’ve all been here. That is part of what makes it so interesting.”

It was a keen observation. Decades after the most recent conflict, I, too, had been drawn to the region’s strange status as an unrecognized state, wondering what I’d find in a place that had been occupied for generations.

For Cypriots in the south, simply visiting the north remains a controversial choice; To some, traveling and spending money in the occupied region seems like tacit support of the Turkish-backed government. Even talking about the conflict is fraught. While Cypriots in the south of the island use the word “invasion” to describe the 1974 arrival of Turkish troops, northerners tend to call the event a “peace operation.” But most foreigners are unfamiliar with the complex back story. For them, Cyprus is simply a Mediterranean getaway with an intriguing past.

Armed with statistics on sunny weather, brochures of sandy beaches and a cheerful take on local history, it is Köprülü’s job to sell the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as a vacation spot for the high-income northern Europeans the ministry hopes to attract in the coming years. Troops have stormed the beaches here since time immemorial, and Köprülü sees the bloody stories written in the ancient cities, castles and excavations as a key selling point.

A history of warfare, it seems, can make for excellent sightseeing.

So I wondered: Is the ongoing controversy of occupation part of the region’s appeal, too? Köprülü smiled, spreading his hands wide as he answered: “I don’t like to talk politics.”

How to get there: Turkish Airlines and Pegasus Airlines offer service from Istanbul to Ercan International Airport in Nicosia, which is banned from receiving international flights. Northern Cyprus can also be reached via land crossings from the Republic of Cyprus.

This article originally appeared here